Very rarely has the Test scene been blessed with a collection of outstanding young batsmen, all with averages exceeding 50. All of them are below 30 and have more wonderful productive years ahead. In addition, we have two most accomplished veterans in the form of Alastair Cook and Hashim Amla. I am not even bringing into the equation batsmen like AB de Villiers and David Warner.
I felt it is time to have an informed crystal-ball look at the careers of these batsmen and to see what are the chances of one or more of these batsmen overtaking the magnificent four who have crossed 13,000 Test runs. This is neither a straightforward extrapolation nor a complex simulation. I have used the individual player's career progress, his team's Test-playing pattern and the player's recent form and the next two-year FTP. So I would say that this is a scientist's look through the crystal ball.
How can the bowlers be left behind? Not in my domain, never. The only difference is that the contesting bowlers are all on the wrong side of 30. As such they have less time ahead of them and their chances at toppling the Goliaths at the top are not very good. However, the study reveals very interesting possibilities. Muttiah Muralitharan could still feel quietly confident, but not necessarily Anil Kumble or Glenn McGrath.
One caveat: Say, I predict that Cook will score another 4000 runs and come September, he announces his retirement; or, unlikely though, Joe Root goes completely off his game and plays for half the projected Tests; or Amla has a poor series against Australia and decides to walk off into the sunset. Could happen but no one can predict such occurrences. My middle name is certainly not "Nostradamus".
The tables and graphs were completed and set in stone as the Durban Test was going on. As such, the data is as at the beginning of this Test: February 28, 2018.
The batting methodology
For base comparison purposes, I selected the top four batsmen. They are Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid. It so happens that all four have scored over 13,000 Test runs, with a single 22-yard stroll separating Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid. This does not mean that we have excluded Kumar Sangakkara. It is just that the design of a good graph required no more than ten players.
Among the current batsmen, the four musketeers, Steven Smith, Joe Root, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson select themselves. They are all at points in the first half of their careers and have scored between 5000 and 6000 runs at averages exceeding 50. Then comes the Test specialist, Cook. Having just crossed 33, he still has productive years ahead of him and is not affected by the demands of the limited-overs format. The sixth player is Hashim Amla. There is no doubt that his best years are behind him but he still has a lot to contribute to South African cricket. De Villiers is a phenomenon but could disappear for multiple series and may very well decide to quit the format two months from now. Warner and Cheteshwar Pujara are on the wrong side of 30 and do not have enough runs to consider a career of of 12,000-plus runs.
First, I looked at the players' careers in terms of runs scored and Tests played so far. This gave me a dependable metric in the form of "Career Runs/Test". Then I looked at their most recent ten Tests (as on February 28) and this gave me another dependable metric in the form of "Recent Runs/Test". I determined my ongoing metric, called "Weighted Runs/Test" as 0.8*"Career Runs/Test" + 0.2*"Recent Runs/Test". Thus the weightage given to career value is four times that of recent form. However, in case the player has fantastic recent form, this will become an important factor.
I looked at each player's career in terms of years and number of Tests played. This gives a good idea of the Test-playing pattern of his country. Some countries place more importance to their Test-playing schedule and some less. Also, many countries never play four- or five-Test series. In the 60-month period of March 2013 to February 2018, 221 Tests were played. England played 65, Australia 57, India 52, Sri Lanka 49 and South Africa only 44. So it is clear that England play, on an average, four Tests more per year than South Africa. This factor will clearly have an impact on Cook's productivity as compared to Amla's.
However, I have given the team playing pattern only as a guideline. It is the player's own playing pattern that is the key value. Certain players, like Dale Steyn, play far fewer Tests than others (eg: Amla). Also omnipresent are selectorial and captaincy quirks. If Kohli decides that he wants to play three pace bowlers + Hardik Pandya + economical spinner, he might leave out R Ashwin at Edgbaston in a few months' time. There is one minor tweak needed for specific players. Smith played in five Tests in the first three years of his career. This reduces the average number of Tests/year to a very low 7.9. So I do an adjustment to get this up to a decent number. A similar tweak is done for Rangana Herath and Steyn, because of their long careers.
Now we come to the fourth dimension, so to speak. Until February 2018, we have solid facts right through the players' careers, barring minor tweaks like for Smith. Now comes the future, which is divided into two parts. The next 22 months, which is within the ICC's FTP coverage, and the period beyond. Most of the ICC's FTP is solid fact. The "fiction" series can be excluded. India are scheduled to play a three-Test series against Sri Lanka in March-April (another India-Sri Lanka series, and stones might be thrown) and a two-Test series against Pakistan towards the end of 2019. These are up in the clouds.
I have worked out the number of Tests each team is likely to play before the end of 2019. Since these are confirmed tours, these are included in the future as "confirmed future Tests". It is confirmed that Australia and England play the maximum number of Tests (27 each + 1 for England), followed by South Africa (25) and India (20). These Tests are added to the actual number of Tests played so far. It is a safe bet to assume that all the players under consideration will be selected in all Tests during these 22 months. Only for Steyn have I reduced this number by two since he is not playing in the first two Tests against Australia.
Now comes a wholly subjective factor. I have the exact age of each player. How long will he play past the end of FTP (2019 - that means from 2020 onwards)? Does anyone know when Cook will stop playing? Of course not. Does Kohli know for how many years longer he will he play Tests? He may even decide in the year 2024 that he wants to concentrate on the limited-overs formats only. So, looking at the current age, how long has the player been playing, what are his format-related known facts, what are the country's leanings (Cook: limited-overs formats - strictly "no") etc, I peg my hat on the number of years the player is likely to play beyond 2020 - a guesstimate only. If any reader can come up with a better solution, I am willing to adapt it. In the meanwhile this is the best I can do. Fortunately, there is no one named Roger Federer who is a Test bowler or batsman. That guy may go on past 40.
The projection of runs until the end of a career is simple arithmetic. The number of years beyond 2019 x Weighted Runs/Test x Average number of Tests/year. The table is self-explanatory.
1. Career to date, until February 28, 2018, is no problem. Actual years played, Tests played and runs scored are available.
2. Career and recent runs/match are determined and a weighted runs/match is calculated.
3. For the next 21 months, the FTP data is used. Number of Tests for each player is available. A 100% selection/participation is assumed.
4. Beyond 2019, an estimate is made on the number of years of play left. This is an educated guess. Using this and 1, the number of further Tests is estimated.
5. Using 2, 3 and 4, the remaining career runs are determined and the final career-ending numbers are derived.
Let us look at the batsmen's table.
A few explanations about the number of years the player is expected to play.
With Cook, we have no limited-overs to worry about, so four years seems about right. He might even squeeze in a few extra months. I expect Root to go slow in his limited-overs career (maybe giving up the same altogether) and extend his Test career. As such, another nine years seems eminently possible. Smith might seem to do the same thing, possibly a year less.
Kohli's is an interesting case. India usually stick to the same captain for all formats. Unless Kohli himself decides to drop a format, I see him playing in all and the IPL, so I expect him to have a slightly shorter Test career than, say, Smith. The other factor is his outstanding ODI career, covered later, which might prompt him to concentrate on that one a little bit longer. Hence I have gone for eight more years for Kohli. Williamson is an out-and-out Test player and will play for as long as he can. I have set his career at ten more years. Amla is 35 and I cannot see him play on for longer than four years.
Now let us look the graph of the selected ten batsmen.
We can draw the following conclusions:
1. There is a 65% chance that Cook will overtake Tendulkar. I have converted the final % into a probability using common sense. This estimate is based on the fact that more than 75% of Cook's career is already over. Readers should remember that England play more Tests each year than any other country.
2. There is a 40% chance that Root will overtake Tendulkar. Even though the final tally of Root is above that of Tendulkar, the fact that there are a lot of Tests to be played means that we have to take a conservative view.
3. The chances that either Cook or Root will overtake Tendulkar is probably as high as 80%. There is virtually no chance of the other four batsmen overtaking Tendulkar. I would put Smith's chances at 25%. I would put the chances of the other batsmen below 10%.
4. I expect Smith to overtake Ricky Ponting, probably around a 70% chance. However, the other three batsmen will remain at around 12,000 Test runs, give or take a few. As such, they are likely to be well below Dravid.
The bowling methodology
I have already mentioned that the main difference in bowling is that most of the contenders are past 30 and past their three-quarter career marks. As such, the projections will have a firmer ring of authenticity. The process is almost totally similar to the batsmen's process, except that "wickets" are used instead of "runs". Hence, I will only explain the selection of players.
For base comparison purposes, I selected the top four bowlers. They are Murali, Shane Warne, Kumble and McGrath. It so happens that all four have taken over 550 Test wickets. It is also nice to note that the next bowler in the list is a major contender.
The bowlers selected are the next six active bowlers in the table: James Anderson, Steyn, Herath, Stuart Broad, Ashwin and Nathan Lyon. Lyon would anyhow have been preferred over Morne Morkel even if the latter had not announced his retirement. I considered Mitchell Starc, a truly magnificent bowler, but I cannot see him going past 400 wickets. The same with Vernon Philander. They might do wonders on the strike-rate front but not on the aggregate wickets metric.
Everything else works as explained under the batting section.
Cook is at 75% of Tendulkar's career aggregate and around 75% of his career, so there is a real contest among the batsmen. However, Anderson is at 65% of Murali's career aggregate and will probably be at 80% of his career. Hence there is really no contest. Less so with Warne. However, both of them seem almost certainly unreachable. Hence I have decided to do the comparisons with Kumble, who is third in the table. This will make the comparisons more relevant.
A few words on the career estimates. Three years for Anderson looks about right. He is in good form and maintains his fitness well. Ashwin is an interesting proposition. He is at the mercy of a captain with uncompromising and, at times, capricious, ideas. There is a good possibility that he may not play India's next Test. He is also not a spring chicken and is older than Broad. So I have pegged only six more years for Ashwin. For Broad, the form is worrying, so I have only given him five more years. He could easily find himself fighting for a place.
Lyon is just past 30, has his captain's support, and bowls well, both at home and away, so I have given him seven more years. His not being in the ODI frame of things might help him in this regard. Steyn is injury-prone and, like de Villiers, could announce his decision to quit. Even three years might be too long. Herath is the ever-performing old war horse and still maintains his fitness. As such, I have predicted another three years for him. His average number of Tests/year is quite low, no doubt due to the overlap with Murali. In any case the three years should take care of things.
Both Anderson and Lyon will comfortably go past Kumble. I would put their individual chances at around 70% for Anderson and 60% for Lyon. I would also assign a 20% chance that either goes past Warne. Ashwin might just fall short of Kumble. I would put his chances to go past at about 40%. Broad is around the same level as Ashwin. However, it is almost certain that these four bowlers will go past McGrath. Steyn and Herath are likely to be well below McGrath, both crossing 500 wickets.
One-day batting projection
Finally, a bonus. In the ODI format, Kohli has been going like the Paris-Lyon TGV on steroids. Where does he stand in the race to overtake Tendulkar's amazing aggregate of 18,426 runs? No other active batsman is within 55% of Tendulkar and no active bowler is within 50% of Murali.
Kohli's current extraordinary numbers are 9588 runs in 208 matches, leading to an RpM of 46. In the last 20 ODI matches, he has averaged an equally mind-boggling 72 runs per match. The weighted RpM works out to 53. He averages 22 matches per year. After much deliberation, I have given him nine more years for his ODI career, a year longer than his projected Test career. That gives him 195 more matches and 10,269 more runs. Thus his career aggregate will be 19,857, which is 107.8% of Tendulkar.
Taking a serious note of the ODI format being sidelined and there being almost a certain reduction in the number of ODIs during the next few years, I will peg Kohli's chances of overtaking Tendulkar at around 50%. But let me say this: Tendulkar is a great player who was, is and will always remain in our hearts. Tendulkar is Federer and Kohli is Djokovic.
These are just projections. There is a good chance that the ODI format will hold its own. However, if India lose interest, there could be serious problems. India might create a mini-IPL in the month of November and everything will go haywire. If someone offers a $10 million contract to Kohli or Smith, who knows what will happen? There is a clear move to strengthen the Test and T20 formats, leading to a steady weakening of the ODI format. So the future is fraught with uncertainty. Whichever format shrinks significantly, Tendulkar will remain at the top there. Let me leave it at that.